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10 things not to do when you are making a speech

Published Aug 5, 2022

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1. Don’t start off with an apology

Inexperienced speakers often start off on the defensive, apologising for something, such as bad tech or that their talk isn’t what they wanted it to be or that they’re a bad public speaker. Don’t do that. Rather start off strongly, with an impressive beginning, such as a story to draw your audience in. The opening and closing of your talk are its most powerful moments, so spend a lot of time crafting those.

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2. Don’t rely on someone else

If you’ve got slides or video or any tech elements, make sure you connect well in advance with the tech person who is in charge of displaying your presentation. Make sure it works properly and that all elements look the same as you intended (fonts can change, text can slip, images can disappear) and that they play. If you’re at a conference, arrive early to sort this out or do it in a tea break. Tech is wonderful until it isn’t.

3. Don’t go on too long

A good rule of thumb is to leave your audience longing for more rather than yawning and looking at their watches. Powerful and punchy is always better than long and waffly.

4. Don’t pack your slides with too many words

So often, conference speakers will show unappealing slides crammed with words (and then, the worst that can happen, read them). Pare down your words, so that you use very few words, if any at all, on your slides. Some of the most memorable presentations I’ve seen use images, or even nothing at all (as with many of the best TED Talks).

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5. Don’t tell a joke

Unless you’re a Trevor Noah or Ricky Gervais in the making or a natural raconteur well rehearsed in communicating humour, don’t attempt a joke. They’re risky and are more likely to fall flat than raise your audience to laughter and applause. That said, don’t be dry and boring either.

6. Don’t assume who your audience is

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You need to tailor your talk for each particular audience, so you’re not pitching it at too high or low a level. Ask questions about the audience beforehand - who are they, what are their interests, what is their knowledge and experience? Adapt accordingly, imparting stories and information you know will be apt for many of them.

7. Don’t talk about yourself too much

If you are Barack Obama or Oprah, you can probably get away with talking about yourself, and your audience will find it compelling. But for the rest of us, it’s best to avoid over-sharing about ourselves or our children - it’s just not that interesting.

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8. Don’t wear the wrong clothes

This goes back to researching who your audience is. While you always want to be yourself and dress so that you feel comfortable on stage, you need to read the tone. If you’re talking to an audience wearing jeans and t-shirts, you don’t want to be in a business suit, or vice versa.

9. Don’t oversell yourself or your company

I remember going to a travel conference where the keynote speaker was from Google, not long after the company established a presence in South Africa. He got up and talked and talked about why everyone should do Google advertising. We were expecting insights into tech and travellers’ interests. What a turn-off.

10. Don’t try to wing it

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse so much that you come across as natural. You need to know where you are in your presentation, where you’ve been and what comes next. Standing on a stage in front of an audience and possibly under bright lights can be intimidating and disorientating. You need to be so familiar with what you’re saying that your presentation comes across as slick, no matter what.

The Independent on Saturday

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